The CPRE is wrong: there are not 460,000 homes planned for England’s green belts

Green belt. Image: Romfordian/Wikimedia Commons.

Mamma mia, here we go again. The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, a body whose raison d’etre is to protect the interests of elderly homeowners and fields, has produced the latest edition of its State of the Green Belt report. Does it conclude that the green belt is in a pretty fine kind of a state, sitting smugly around the place as it chokes off productivity growth and prevents us from building the houses that we need? No it does not.

The Green Belt remains under severe pressure, despite government commitments to its protection, according to a new report from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).

CPRE’s annual State of the Green Belt report highlights that there are currently 460,000 homes being planned to be built on land that will soon be released from the Green Belt.

There’s even a TERRIFYING CHART to illustrate the problem:

Now. Regular readers will know my position on all this. The green belt is a decades-old planning policy, designed to prevent sprawl at a time when our cities were shrinking in population and, anyway, had plenty of spare land that had helpfully been cleared by the Luftwaffe. Many of those cities are today facing a housing crisis which is in large part the result of a shortage of housing supply. That, in turn, is the result of a shortage of available land on which to build.

So, if London or Oxford or Bristol are to build enough homes to meet demand, there are really only two options: build up, by densifying existing parts of the city; or build out, onto previously undeveloped land. Since there are large chunks of the green belt that have decent transport links, aren’t open to the public and are not, in fact, very green, my preference has generally been to go for the solution that doesn’t involve demolishing large numbers of existing homes simply to protect a field.

But let’s put all that to one side for a moment because the entire CPRE report is a load of smelly old bollocks anyway. Look at that chart again: note the way the number of houses “proposed for land release from the green belt” collapses after the initial 2009 figure, then gradually begins to creep up.

What’s going on here? The key is that word “proposed”. These are not real houses, yet, and very well may never become them. They exist entirely within the realms of the local plans councils have written to show how they plan to meet their housing need. The reason their numbers have increased so steeply is because more and more councils have finished producing those plans. (The 2009 draft regional plans clearly under-estimated the figure.)

In other words, what the CPRE has identified here is not an ever growing number of homes on the green belt, but an ever growing number of bits of paper saying such homes may one day be built. They’ve leapt on it, because, “Number of homes proposed for the green belt doubled in three years!” is the sort of headline that’ll get you news coverage for your report. That doesn’t change the fact those houses don’t exist and very probably, given the difficulty of getting communities to accept green belt development, never will.

Does this duplicity matter, really? We all know that campaign groups exaggerate the urgency of their issue in an attempt to garner donations and press coverage. I mean, this is the game, right?


But it does matter – because whether through deliberate cynicism, or merely sloppy research, the CPRE’s report will mislead. It suggests that a growing chunk of the British countryside is disappearing under a tide of brick. That simply isn’t true.

And persuading people that it is makes it harder for politicians to take the tough choices necessary to house this country.

Today’s CPRE report airily waves the need for such choices away, by claiming that there is enough brownfield land – that is, previously developed but currently unoccupied land – in England to provide a million extra homes. That may well be true, but this, too, is misleading, for three reasons.

One is that “land in England” is too wide a category to be useful: if your job is in Oxford, the construction of new homes in Sunderland is of no bloody use to you whatsoever. Another is that, while a million homes sounds like a big number, it isn’t: it’s three or four years supply. Were we to develop every square inch of this land as housing, we would still run out of land by about 2022.

But the biggest problem here is that brownfield land is not all suitable for housing. It may be too contaminated to be easily cleaned up without making local children glow in the dark like they’ve eaten too much Ready Brek, too far from transport links, even – confusingly – too green. (The Hoo Peninsular, in Kent, is technically brownfield: it’s also an important breeding site for nightingales.) The only time “brownfield” is a useful category is when you’re writing a misleading report about how we don’t need to build houses on fields.

So, to end where we came in, for a city struggling to build enough homes to house its population, there are only two options: build up, or build out. The CPRE has made clear it doesn’t want to build out. So what I’d like to know is – whose homes does it think we should demolish?

(Shameless plug: I argued some of these points with the CPRE’s Tom Fyans on Radio 4’s Today Programme on Monday. You can listen here – my bit starts at around 1.13.10.)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

This article first appeared on our sister site, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.